Is Horse-Race Coverage Killing Mitt Romney?

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The obsessions of the political press are unhealthy, but the Republican is clearly losing on substance, too.

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With some conservatives insisting that polls showing President Obama leading the presidential race are a liberal media conspiracy, Jonathan Chait defends the integrity of the polls, but concedes that "rampant horse race coverage affects the outcome of the race ... campaign coverage devotes far too much attention to which candidate is winning, and far too little time to conveying information that voters might use to make up their minds. Instead, the horse race coverage takes the place of the substantive coverage, and the candidate with the lead appears decisive and competent, and the trailing candidate faintly ridiculous. A good deal of what undecided voters who are just now tuning in will learn about Romney is that he's a loser disdained by fellow Republicans."

Says Ross Douthat, "This is exactly right, and it's crucial to understanding why the president's re-election odds look ever better in spite of the fact that actual world events -- from Libya to the latest growth numbers -- haven't been falling out to his advantage lately. There are plenty of stories circulating that might be expected to hurt Obama's political prospects, but given the press's horse-race biases none of them are powerful enough to pull the spotlight away from Romney's flailings: They're either big but not new enough (the lousy economy) or new but not big enough (the administration's shifting Libya stories) to break through the campaign coverage."

I agree that the political press emphasizes horse-race coverage too much, that Obama's reelection prospects look better than one might expect given the economy, and that Romney's failings are very much in the spotlight, even in the conservative media, where there is growing alarm. And I generally agree with Douthat that a bias toward horse-race coverage does more to shape how campaigns are covered than the ideological biases of mainstream media reporters. 

So I was surprised to find myself disagreeing with Douthat as he described the last several weeks of the campaign:

... beginning with the conventions, we've had a reinforcing, oxygen-devouring sequence of developments -- an Obama polling bounce followed by Romney's clumsy Libya gambit followed by the "47 percent" disaster followed by further Obama polling gains -- that's made the horse race coverage the only coverage that matters where Romney's prospects are concerned ....

... none of this excuses Romney for running such an uncreative campaign, let alone for letting the "47 percent" remarks that may -- I said may! -- have sealed his fate escape his lips. As a presidential candidate part of your job is to be aware of how easily the horse race narrative can overwhelm whatever story you want the country to be hearing, and to do everything in your power to actively shape a narrative that will inevitably be shaped by the press's zeal for "who's up/who's down" reportage as well. By choosing instead to sit back and play it safe for much of the year, assuming that the underlying story of economic weakness would deliver them the White House no matter what stories drove coverage in the day-to-day, Team Romney set themselves up for exactly the kind of horse-race-driven disaster they've experienced this month.

Here's a different way of looking at recent weeks, starting with the RNC. As Rich Lowry notes in his latest Politico column, "The two conventions -- so far, the pivot of the election -- were encapsulated in their two signature performances. On one hand, there was Clint Eastwood's rambling, improvised 10-minute routine saying that it's OK to cashier Obama. On the other, there was Clinton's (at times rambling and improvised) 50-minute speech detailing why Romney's program is wrong for the country. Eastwood could have given his speech at amateur night at a comedy club; Clinton could have given his at a policy luncheon at The Brookings Institution."


A previous incarnation of Mitt "the weeds are important" Romney might've been helped by a reformed political press that minimized campaign gimmicks and dutifully focused on the substance that the two parties offered. But Romney2012.0? He offered nothing comparable to Clinton's speech. He lost the convention on substance, never having even tried to compete. Says Douthat, just because an emphasis on horse-race coverage is predictable "doesn't mean that it's a positive sign, for the press or the republic that it's supposed to serve, that the incumbent president is suddenly gliding to re-election without having to answer for his economic record or explain what will be different about his second term." Wasn't Clinton's speech in fact Team Obama offering a direct answer for Obama's economic record, agree with it or not?

Douthat next mentions Romney's remarks on Libya, which perhaps damaged him partly because it seemed to many like he was using a terrible tragedy to score points in the horse race; but for many, it was the substance of his words that damaged him. As Douthat wrote at the time, "Romney's attack conflated an embassy communique with an official presidential statement, mischaracterized the release as a response to the murder of an American when it had actually preceded the violence, and dragged the spotlight over to presidential politics instead of focusing it on the White House's crisis management." And if you could overlook all that, and zero in on the substantive difference between the candidates on Libya policy? "It isn't clear at all what Mitt Romney would actually do differently. Since their Tuesday night jab backfired, the Romney campaign has tried to flesh a more substantive critique of Obama's foreign policy, but the actual differences seem to be less substantial than the posturing suggests," Douthat writes.

He continues:
In a best-case scenario, a Romney foreign policy might be more hardheaded and less shot through with wishful thinking than the current administration's posture; in a worst-case scenario, it would blunder more deeply into messes where we're already enmeshed, substituting the rhetoric of toughness for actual clarity of purpose and chest-thumping for finesse. Either way, though, it's hard to discern a genuine alternative Middle Eastern strategy between the lines the Romney talking points. Which means that American voters are facing the same choice on foreign policy that they face on domestic issues: The incumbent's approach isn't working, but the challenger isn't giving us much reason to be confident that he knows what we should do instead.
So again, a shift to substance doesn't help Romney.

That leaves Romney's 47 percent remarks. Douthat says that he has no excuse for making them because "as a presidential candidate part of your job is to be aware of how easily the horse race narrative can overwhelm whatever story you want the country to be hearing." The substantive reason Romney has no excuse for saying those things is that they were factually inaccurate.

The 47 percent of Americans who pay no income taxes do, in fact, include lots of Romney voters. They are not, in fact, all Americans who can't be convinced to take responsibility for their own lives. It hardly matters whether you look at those words from a horse race perspective, or delve into their substance, ignoring how they're perceived. Romney loses either way. 

"Even if you're unsympathetic to the G.O.P, it's not obviously a good thing that Romney's campaign troubles seem to be looming so much larger in the media coverage of this election than the record of the man who has actually been occupying 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue these last four years," Douthat concludes. And I completely agree with him there. It's just that Romney's substance problems loom large compared to Obama's too, and that isn't due to media obsession with the horse race so much as a Romney campaign that isn't trying to be substantive.

I obviously agree that the press ought to hold Obama accountable for his actions, regardless of his opponent, but when the editor of National Review is noting that "Election Day is nearly six weeks away and there's still a sense that the Romney campaign has not yet -- although it is moving this way -- fully begun to make its case on substance," he wouldn't benefit if the press corps started eschewing horse race coverage and digging into his proposals, any more than Herman Cain would've benefited if the press ignored allegations of womanizing and focused on 9-9-9. Of course, the fact that a focus on substance wouldn't help Romney doesn't change the press' obligations; but a candidate more substance-driven than Romney would push coverage in the right direction.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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